more peaceful change

Political awareness and action will be facilitated and more peaceful change and public uprisings like the Arab Spring will emerge.1

This one sounds really good. REALLY good. More peaceful change. Who can object to that for the future?

But it really sounds too good. The Arab Spring brought about change, and at the time those changes appeared to be peaceful – or at least without much violence. But we haven’t seen the long-term results of those changes. Syria is still going through its Arab Spring and it hasn’t been anything like what we saw in Tunisia or Libya or Egypt. Even Egypt is still going through changes that I wouldn’t characterize as all that peaceful.

This thesis seems so incredibly naive and western-world-centric, especially U.S.-centric. We don’t have the same sense of history that is felt so deeply in other parts of the world. A mere two hundred plus years are all that provide our historical framework. In Europe, that framework is many more centuries, although the most recent centuries seem to hold the greatest sway on intellectual life. But in the Middle East, the events of more than a millennium ago form the backdrop for intellectuals, political leaders, poets, and individuals. Those previously in power can afford to wait to take back what they feel is rightfully theirs. History is on their side.

Watching events in the Ukraine also make me feel that it is presumptuous of us to believe that events on one day – or week or month or season – that are unmarked by violence and therefore are declared “peaceful” – are sufficient for a declaration that the long-term series of events will remain so.

The ease with which information can be shared and exchanged also means rumors, gossip, and conspiracy theories also may spread quickly. The strongly expressed opinions of nearly everyone I know seem to make their way into Facebook posts.

I’ve been reading about and watching presentations on neuroscience lately. One set of presentations by Christine Comaford, an executive coach, centers around the three areas of the brain – the reptilian, mammalian, and cortex. According to Comaford, the reptilian brain deals with issues of safety, the mammalian brain with issues of belonging, and the cortex with issues of mattering. Together, the reptilian and mammalian brain control the fight-flight-freeze reaction when we feel threatened. Comaford calls the reptilian and mammalian brain the critter brain while the cortex is the portion of the brain that allows us to operate in a smart state. Her goal is to provide those she coaches with information to help them keep themselves as well as those they supervise operating in that smart state, outside of the critter brain state.

Comaford’s reference to the three brains reflects Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs quite well, with Maslow’s lowest two needs – physiological and safety – corresponding to the reptilian brain, the next one – love and belonging – to the mammalian brain, and the upper two needs – esteem and self-actualization – corresponding to the cortex.

I have been thinking about these three centers of the brain to reflect on which of them Facebook posts appeal to. And far more than I am comfortable with seem to appeal to the critter brain – engendering fear by pointing out how the way someone else thinks is threatening or on the differences between people that indicate some people don’t belong to the same group as I do.

The Pew Internet article quotes Rui Correia, director of Netday Namibia, a non-profit supporting innovations in information technology for education and development, as saying, “With mobile technologies and information-sharing apps becoming ubiquitous, we can expect some significant improvement in the awareness of otherwise illiterate and ill-informed rural populations to opportunities missed out by manipulative and corrupt governments. Like the Arab Spring, we can expect more and more uprisings to take place as people become more informed and able to communicate their concerns.”2 These thoughts appeal to the smart brain, the cortex. But the thought that “otherwise illiterate and ill-informed rural populations” do not operate much of the time from their critter state minds is incredibly optimistic. Education doesn’t ensure we rise above operating in the critter state. But I hope it helps.

Another contributor to the Pew Internet article, Nicole Ellison, an associate professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan, predicted, “As more of the global population comes online, there will be increased awareness of the massive disparities in access to health care, clear water, education, food, and human rights.”3 Again, I am concerned that issues of disparities in precisely those areas of life are likely to result in reactions from the critter brain, to Maslow’s bottom two needs, rather than in the smart state. And the outcome I see when there is greater awareness of disparities is anger about the lack fairness in access.

Or so my critter brain fears.


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